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And yeti, she moves!
on 5 October 2013
"Abominable Science" is a book about a somewhat unusual subject, cryptozoology. Although most people probably never heard about it, virtually everyone knows about Bigfoot, the Yeti or Nessie. Cryptozoologists are the researchers who chase Bigfoot and other monsters, hoping to prove one day that they really do exist. A few cryptozoologists are real scientists (think Jeff Meldrum), but most are amateur enthusiasts (think Bobo - not mentioned in this book, however). The authors of "Abominable Science", Daniel Loxton and Donald Prothero, are sceptics who firmly believe that cryptozoology is a dead end. Their opinions are the official ones within science: the monsters are figments of our imagination, folklore, media hype, or even outright hoaxes.
Loxton is "quite the character", apparently an old hippie of some kind, who used to believe in monsters as a child and teenager, before "converting" to the sceptical viewpoint. However, he still has an emotional attachment to some of the "cryptids", even being a member of a cryptzoological group chasing the Cadborosaurus a.k.a. Caddy, a local Canadian monster celebrity. Despite this, his criticism of cryptozoology is often incisive and harsh. His co-author, Donald Prothero, is momentarily best known as the most popular critical Amazon reviewer of Stephen Meyer's blockbuster "Darwin's Doubt". Otherwise, Prothero is a geologist, palaeontologist and writer of books debunking pseudo-science. He is less emotionally attached to the monster-hunters than Loxton, viewing cryptozoology as another form of flawed cultism that can wreck America, alongside climate change denial, creationism, etc. While belief in Bigfoot might look harmless in itself, such ideas foster uncritical thinking that can spill over into other areas, including those that are more socially and politically important.
"Abominable Science" is divided into seven chapters, some written by Loxton, others by Prothero. The first and seventh chapters deal with cryptozoology in general, while the chapters in between debunk five somewhat different monsters: Bigfoot, the Yeti or Abominable Snowman, the Loch Ness monster, the Sea Serpent and Mokele-Mbembe. With the exception of the last, these are virtual icons of pop culture.
Indeed, Loxton believes that they *are* pop culture. Bigfoot and other "cryptids" aren't unknown animals of flesh and blood. They are definitely not some kind of paranormal spooks. Rather, they are creations of our collective cultural imagination. Thus, the monster of Loch Ness (Nessie for short) is inspired by one of the dinosaur monsters in the Hollywood motion picture "King Kong", which premiered in 1933. Modern Bigfoot reports can be traced to a small number of hoaxes or uncorroborated reports during the 1950's. Loxton's old pal Cadborosaurus might have been the invention of a local newspaper editor in Canada during the 1930's. Once the monsters catch the popular imagination, people everywhere start to see them, interpreting mysterious observations in the light of the iconic image of how a monster "should" look like. Witness reports don't corroborate the "classical" view of cryptids, they are *caused* by them. The story of the Sea Serpent is more complicated, but here too, we are dealing with old legends that have been creatively reworked by individual authors over the centuries, until their final break-through during the 18th century, when even scientists for a short while took the sea serpent seriously. If sceptics like Loxton are right, cryptozoologists are chasing phantoms, mixtures of folklore and fakelore. Indeed, cryptozoologists might be partially responsible for perpetuating the myths they are trying to entangle!
The Mokele-Mbembe might be less known to the general public (try pronounce it!), but this "surviving dinosaur" in the heart of Africa is seen as important by young earth creationists who want to disprove evolution. Most expeditions to the Congo and other parts of Africa searching for the neo-dinosaur have been organized and financed by a subset of Christian fundamentalists in the United States. It's no coincidence that anti-creationist writer Prothero takes on the myth of the African dinosaur. And yes, he's scathing.
Of course, this is what sceptics usually say. Nobody who has been around this debate before will find the arguments new or original. What makes "Abominable Science" worth reading is the presentation. The book is well-written, systematic and easy to understand. It contains a lot of photos and illustrations. I predict it will eventually become a classic in its field, and probably the book all sceptics from now on will refer to when they wish to debunk cryptozoology in general and Bigfoot in particular. If it will convince the cryptozoologists (including a mysterious and over-romantic Amazon reviewer known as Ash) is perhaps another matter. And Yeti, she moves?
The most surprising chapter is the last, where Loxton and Prothero present a number of surveys indicating that the stereotyped view of cryptozoologists and Bigfooters might be erroneous. It turns out that more women than men believe in B Bigfoot, despite the Bigfooting subculture being male-dominated. It also turns out that most people who attend Bigfoot conventions are conventional, middle aged, middle income people who usually don't believe in other "paranormal" phenomena. Phew, seems I'm in good company, after all. Although I secretly hope that Bigfoot will one day show himself on the White House lawn, or at least on a Seattle tramway station, and even more secretly believe he is a Native spirit-being with a smelly attitude (the other monsters be damned - I mean, Cadboro what-kind-of-bloody-saurus?), I nevertheless admit that "Abominable Science" was an abominably good read, so both me and my squatch hereby award it...five stars.